Lives of the fellows

Otto May

b.15 October 1879 d.15 August 1946
BA Cantab(1900) MA Cantab(1904) MB ChB Cantab(1907) MD Cantab(1909) MRCP(1908) FRCP(1936)

Otto May was born in 1879, the second son of William May, a merchant, of London, and his wife, née Emma Aufholz. He was educated privately and entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, as a foundation scholar. He obtained a first class in parts i and ii of the natural sciences tripos, and was then appointed a University demonstrator in physiology; he also coached undergraduates in that subject with much success.

On the advice of Professor Langley he began at Cambridge an investigation into the mechanism of pancreatic secretion excited by the entry of acid into the duodenum. Unfortunately Bayliss and Starling were studying the same question at University College, London, and their discovery of secretin, and the conception of hormones that arose from it, anticipated his epoch-making research. This disappointment led him to study medicine, and in 1904 he entered University College Hospital with a University scholarship.

May had a successful hospital career, being awarded the Aitchison scholarship and the Liston medal. He was one of the founders of the University College Hospital Magazine and its first editor. After holding the appointments of house physician and house surgeon at U.C.H., he became in 1908 medical registrar at the Middlesex Hospital, and in 1909 physician to out-patients at the Evelina Hospital for Children. In these years he also held a British Medical Association research scholarship and later a Beit fellowship.

In 1909 he did some research work with Sir Victor Horsley at University College on the mesencephalic root of the fifth nerve (Brain, 1910, 33, 175-203). To this period belong his papers on sensory disturbances of heart disease (Arch. Middlesex Hosp., 1909, 17, 53-65), the mechanism of cardiac pain, and posterior root section for the treatment of spasticity (Lancet, 1911, 1, 1489-91).

With this brilliant record and high professional attainments a successful career in consulting medicine seemed assured, when to everyone’s surprise, soon after his appointment to the Evelina Hospital, Otto May entered the field of insurance medicine as principal medical officer to the Prudential Assurance Company. In this capacity he did excellent work, and ‘he combined most happily the wisdom and caution of long experience of the effect of morbid conditions on life expectation with an alert interest in modern methods of research and treatment’.

He served the Assurance Medical Society as secretary for many years and in 1926 was its president. He was an honorary member of the Association of Life Assurance Medical Directors of America, and chairman of the organising committee of the International Congress on Life Assurance Medicine in 1938.

May was keenly interested in the campaign against venereal diseases. He gave great support to the British Social Hygiene Council, lectured to the troops in the First World War, and later helped the Central Council for Health Education in its propaganda. Another interest was the welfare of merchant seamen. He attended the meeting of the International Labour Office of the League of Nations at Geneva in 1920, which resulted in the Brussels Agreement of 1924 and Seamen’s Welfare in Ports Recommendations in 1933, and his representations encouraged the Ministry of Labour to set up a departmental committee on port welfare in 1939.

He had retired to Harpenden in Hertfordshire, but on the outbreak of the Second World War he returned to duty and undertook medical examination of recruits for the Services.

May was of medium height, clean-shaven and good looking; in earlier days his well-shaped head was covered with curly black hair. He had a whimsical sense of humour and posed as a cynic, but had a warm and kindly heart. He was a good linguist in French and German. Reading the humanities and golf were his recreations. He married Gertrude Mabel, second daughter of T. H. Rose, J.P. They had two sons.

Richard R Trail

[, 1946, 2, 314-15, 404; Lancet, 1946, 2, 366-7; Nature (Lond.), 1946, 158, 370; Times, 17 Aug. 1946; Univ. Coll. Hosp. Mag., 1946, 31, 62-3.]

(Volume V, page 274)

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